Universities in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Polytechnic University denies not rehiring social work instructors due to financial problems

Nine teachers from department of applied social sciences told their contracts would not be renewed in August

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 8:20pm

A Hong Kong university under fire for not renewing the contracts of nine instructors has denied allegations that it is facing financial problems and prioritising research over education in pursuit of better rankings.

Polytechnic University, known for its strong social work placement programme, issued a statement late Wednesday night amid mounting complaints from the nine teachers in its department of applied social sciences and their supporters from the social work sector.

The instructors were hired as students’ fieldwork supervisors, with half the workload of full-timers. They said they were told their contracts ending in August would not be renewed because the department was facing a deficit of more than HK$24 million (US$3 million) by 2020.

The news sparked accusations by the teachers that PolyU was “threatening the quality of social work placement teaching”, “exploiting” teachers and disregarding their employment rights.

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According to the instructors, the school said it could re-employ some of them as part-time supervisors, where they would be paid per hour.

While part-time supervisors can perform too, they tend to take on only about two students a semester, compared with about five for half-time instructors
Fung Wai-wah, Professional Teachers’ Union president

In its statement, PolyU explained that the move was meant to align its practices with those of other local institutions.

“[For] other local universities, supervision work is mostly taken up by part-time sessional supervisors based on the number of students in placement,” it said.

Professional Teachers’ Union president Fung Wai-wah, a former social worker, said however that keeping half-time instructors would provide more stability and continuity.

“While part-time supervisors can perform too, they tend to take on only about two students a semester, compared with about five for half-time instructors, who also conduct workshops sometimes,” he said.

According to PolyU, the department employed about 60 part-timers to do 70 per cent of the supervision work while the remainder was done by full- and half-time instructors. The nine teachers in question were responsible for about a quarter of the supervision load.

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The school said that while its financial status on the whole was healthy, as a publicly funded university, each of its departments had to regularly review its current operating model to ensure the effective use of resources.

The university rejected suggestions that it was focusing on research rather than education, saying that nurturing talent was PolyU’s core mission, and it had continuously increased the resources put into enhancing the quality of education in recent years.

“We are prepared and are keen to, under feasible and practicable circumstances, discuss with [the instructors] the associated arrangement,” the school said.

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The instructors and their supporters, including various social work and teacher groups, have called for PolyU to rehire the affected teachers and promise to retain the half-time instructor posts.

They also urged the University Grants Committee, which oversees funding for the city’s eight public universities, to return funding for social work students to previous levels. Social work students currently have available resources equivalent to those of a typical undergraduate, down from 1.3 times that of the average student.

Social workers said the reduction in funding had led to a shortage of resources for social work departments, adding that work placements required additional resources to ensure the quality of training to deal with Hong Kong’s increasingly severe social problems.